A Maltese traveller in Canada might be surprised to come across a plaque commemorating a Maltese man and finding out he played a significant part in this faraway city’s history and in Canada’s naval industry.
Indeed, in St Catharines, Canada, near the Welland Canal, the plaque reads: “A prominent Canadian shipbuilder, Shickluna, was born in Malta, where he worked before emigrating to North America. By 1835 he was engaged in ship construction at Youngstown, New York.
“Three years later, attracted by the traffic stimulated by the Welland Canal’s completion in 1833, he purchased a shipyard on the canal at St Catharines. Shickluna steadily expanded his operations, which contributed significantly to the commercial prosperity of the region.
“Between 1838 and 1880 he directed the construction of over 140 schooners, barkentines, steamers and other vessels designed primarily for service on the Great Lakes, thereby promoting the development of inland navigation in Canada. Following Shickluna’s death, his son Joseph continued to operate the St Catharines shipyard until 1892.”
This inscription commemorates Louis Shickluna. He attained a height of fame reached by no other Maltese emigrant to Canada. Born in Senglea on June 16, 1808, son of Joseph, a shipbuilder, and Therese née Farrugia, both of Senglea, Louis grew up to be known by his peers as “a prince among shipbuilders” and one of St Catharines’ most notable citizens.
Although as a child Scicluna showed no academic inclination, causing his parents much concern, his love for boats started very early in life. The reality that he was born and raised in a vibrant maritime city must have played a considerable part in sowing his passion for and intuitive understanding of shipbuilding.
At the tender age of 11, he began learning his craft with his father and grandfather at the Royal Navy’s shipyard. He continued developing his expertise in shipbuilding and carpentry throughout his teen years.
When an economic depression hit Malta, Scicluna, aged 17, bought a passage on a British ship and reached New York City in search of work. New York was not the sort of place he had in mind and so he moved on to Trios Riveres, Quebec, Canada, where he worked with the SS Royal William, a Canadian side-wheel paddle steamship that is sometimes credited with achieving the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean to be made almost entirely under steam power, using sails only during periods of boiler maintenance.
Scicluna spent 1831 as second mate on the Royal William, travelling between Quebec City and Halifax. After the lay-up of the steamer in 1832 because of a widespread epidemic, he moved to Lake Ontario at Oakville, where he was employed to help with the building of the steamship Constitution (later renamed Transit), and other vessels. For easier pronunciation among non-Maltese-speaking Canadians, he was advised to change his surname to Shickluna.
Henry Mittleberger, a business associate of William Hamilton Merritt, the founder of the Welland Canal, convinced Shickluna to relocate to St Catharines to work on ships along ‘Mr Merritt’s ditch’. These important entrepreneurs had perceived Shickluna’s potential, making it evident that, by this time, he notably distinguished himself.
Intrigued by the proposition, Shickluna took up the offer in 1836, leasing a shipyard along the bank of the old canal (as distinguished from the newly-constructed Welland Canal mentioned by the plaque) from Merritt for $15 per year, buying the yard outright from Merritt in 1845.
The reality that he was born and raised in a vibrant maritime city must have played a considerable part in sowing his passion for and intuitive understanding of shipbuilding
Ironically, the very first ship he repaired had been dubbed The Welland Canal. In 1841, he built his first schooner in St Catharines. It was called the Chief Justice Robinson, and was the largest vessel able to navigate the Welland Canal at the time. This was followed by the Merchant Miller, launched on August 18, the two-masted schooners Lady Bagot, the following year, and the Almeda in 1844.
Shickluna dedicated most of his time to studying and examining seacraft that operated in the region, yet also managed to mingle with the local maritime community. When he had absorbed enough information on the subject, he established a shipbuilding yard close to the Welland Canal in 1850.
He immediately established a reputation for being a skilled shipbuilder and soon employed more than 300 people, or 15 per cent of the entire working population of St Catharines, including a large group of former fugitive slaves to whom he ensured competitive pay.
Indeed, this is a characteristic of which one should be extremely proud and which deserves to be highlighted. Unlike some latter-day employers, he refused to take advantage of these asylum-seekers and treated them with the dignity and respect all human beings deserve. Despite being a remarkably successful entrepreneur, he did not make a golden calf out of lucre and did not jettison human values.
Close to Shickluna’s shipbuilding yard, a man-made waterway was taking shape to allow vessels to bypass the Niagara Falls, making it a major link in the Great Lakes. He was astute enough to anticipate that the area would become a hub of shipping activity.
The shipyard itself was kept busy building, rebuilding, repairing and overhauling ships of various sizes, designs and tonnage despite fierce competition. It was divided into two sections that could be drained or flooded separately, permitting two vessels to be accommodated simultaneously.
Few and far between were the times when either dry dock was empty or when ships were not being built in the yard ashore or lined up outside awaiting repairs. Indeed, even with such a large workforce, he was often forced to turn down work as he was inundated with contracts.
Shickluna was one of a kind. If it suited an owner to have a ship built somewhere other than at the Shickluna yard, he would move his men and facilities to a more appropriate location. His own work with an adze was legendary, and his yard had a reputation for quality, a characteristic that no doubt won him many contracts.
We do not know the identity of the first ship Shickluna built at his new yard and, in fact, the date when he built his first vessel in the Niagara area is disputed. It is claimed that Shickluna built the two-masted schooner R.H. Boughton at Youngstown in 1829, but this is very doubtful considering he is not known to have crossed the Atlantic until 1831.
Throughout his life, Shickluna never learned to speak English well and could neither read nor write, except for his signature. Contracts were made verbally and sealed with a handshake.
He kept no record of the work done at his premises. So it is next to impossible to draw up a complete list of all the ships built by Shickluna over the half century that he was in business. Records of materials, costs, lists of employees, wages and similar items were the only documents kept. Hence it is very difficult to determine with precision all the launchings.
It is estimated that by 1856, Shickluna had built 24 vessels at the St Catharines shipyard, in addition to doing countless repairs. In his lifetime, he is reported to have built as many as 150 vessels, and perhaps more, including schooners, barkentines, barks, steamers, barges, scows and tugs.
Shickluna’s shipyard produced high-quality hulls lasting longer than those of his competitors. His shipbuilding yard prospered and contributed immensely to the region’s economy. His ships were renowned worldwide for their good build. His output was phenomenal and he became the greatest Canadian shipbuilder of his time, and one of the greatest on the North American continent.
The last vessel Shickluna built was the composite package freight propeller Sir L. S. Tilley.
Shickluna was a shy and elusive man, a humanitarian and a charitable person. He was friendly, kind, humble and much loved by his family, friends and employees. A man skilled with the tools of his trade, he himself assisted in the building of ships and was also the originator of many modifications on ship designs.
He had a phenomenal memory for detail and it is recorded that within a few seconds he could give the most accurate estimate on a ship contract. Many streets in St Catharines, Ontario, have a connection in their names with him or members of his family. Some of his ships became legendary in Canadian folksongs and there are many islands in the Upper Great Lakes named after them.
He married three times, each time to Canadians from Ontario. In 1833 he married Elizabeth Orr and had four sons: John, George, Henry and Adrian. His wife died in 1839. In 1835 he visited his family in Malta, probably to claim his inheritance from his wealthy parents.
Shickluna’s shipyard produced high-quality hulls lasting longer than those of his competitors. His shipbuilding yard prospered and contributed immensely to the region’s economy
In 1840 he married Mary Ann Stephenson. They had two sons, Joseph and John, and a daughter, Theresa. His second wife died in 1855. In 1858 he got married for the third time, to Mary Ann Dunn of Niagara, a widow with a daughter. They had a daughter Regina. His wife Mary Ann, outlived him, surviving until 1913.
In 1871, struggling with failing health and rheumatoid arthritis, Shickluna consummated his wish to return for a final visit to Malta. His departure from Canada was marked by speech-making and band-playing. The people of St Catherines presented him with a testimonial scroll, now found in the St Catharines Public Library, along with a gold watch and chain.
The scroll reads: “We, as citizens of St Catharines, with the prosperity of which you have been so long indentified, desire to present you with the accompanying gift as evidence of the esteem in which you are held among us. We have great pleasure in congratulating you on the well merited success that has followed your diligent efforts in attaining a competency for yourself and contributing to the material advancement of our town.
“This gift but feebly expresses the estimation in which you are held by your fellow townsmen, who are not unmindful of the many benefits you have, though your exertions, conferred upon us during the last 30 years.
“When we call to mind the circumstances under which you commenced your career as a shipbuilder in this place, and the rapid advancement of the highly prosperous and remunerative business you have established, we feel a just pride in the fact that one of our townsmen should have attained to the first place amongst the Marine Architects on the Dominian, a position the more honourable because Canada can boast of possessing several of the best shipwrights on the American continent.
“In the journey you are about to undertake to the land of your nativity, we wish you a pleasant voyage, feeling assured that your visit and your renewed intercourse with your kindred and friends will contribute much to the pleasure you will enjoy during your absence. And when you return to the home of your adoption, rely upon it that you will receive the hearty greetings of many warm friends, who will gladly welcome you back to the shores of Canada. Again, we wish you a prosperous voyage, a happy visit, and a safe return.”
There are 97 signatures to this document, many of which were of the most prominent citizens of St Catharines and Ontario.
Late in 1872, he returned to St Catharines. Shickluna, the marine architect, captain, businessman, shipwright, shipowner, financier and, for a short while, a city father of Ontario, and very active and prominent in public affairs, passed away on April 24, 1880. He was buried in Victoria Lawn Cemetery, situated beside Welland Canal in east St Catharines. He left behind not only a shipyard and a fleet of masterworks, but a legacy that also helped put this great city on the map.
Unfortunately, today, all trace of Shickluna and his work is gone. The man himself has been in his grave for 135 years, and the last of his ships, strong and sound as they were, passed into the realm of the history books many years ago.
Today, very few people have even heard of Shickluna or his shipyard, from which there appeared more new vessels than from any other individual shipyard that has ever operated on the Great Lakes.
Although he is recognised in Canada’s maritime history and his name is included in the authoritative Dictionary of Canadian Biography, today Louis Shickluna lies entirely forgotten in Malta, his homeland, and uncommemorated in Senglea, his birth place.